The attraction of interview podcasts is their DIY nature. It is a return to the intellectual imitation that marked the birth of the public. But it is of an entirely different scale and reach. The group that listens to hours-long intellectual conversations every week these days numbers in the millions. And many of them live, like my high school friends, in places where it would have been impossible to overhear an intellectual conversation only 15 years ago.
Anecdotally, people are picking up new behaviors and mental models from the conversations they overhear. They are imitating, at least on a superficial level, the strategies intellectuals use when confronting hard questions in real time (“You are saying …”, “Let me rephrase that question,” “There are several sub-questions here; let me start with …”). They absorb the tone that successful people use to establish casual rapport with someone they have just met. Podcast listeners also hear, again and again, how someone good at asking questions provides a context for someone else to be interesting.
We might also be picking up dysfunctional patterns. Putting these thoughts to my friends in the village, they played the devil’s advocate (saying the phrase in English). One of them observed that he felt like they were getting worse at turn-taking when talking—which could be a pattern picked up by listening to people who monolog while the podcast host does all the conversational labor.
As we consider the impact of the podcast phenomenon on a global scale, it is intriguing to ponder where the trend might lead us. The French Revolution, the founding of the United States, industrialization, the growth of science—these trends and events can be parsed as the Republic of Letters attempting to remake the world in its image: cosmopolitan, skeptical of received authority, and rational.
The values, ideas, and norms that spread through DIY broadcasting and parasocial imitation today—can that shape the world, too? It is tempting to be dismissive of such ideas. For every person listening to an eight-hour intellectual podcast, there are 10 who listen to gossip and entertainment.
But this was true of the early modern age too. When Erasmus sat on horseback sketching letters, it didn’t look like much. He was just talking to his friends, and what difference can a few antiquity nerds make? The world around them was descending into witch hunts and religious wars. The budding public, who listened in on the intellectual conversations, was a rounding error in the population statistics. Yet we now live in the world they wrote into being.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of social learning, and what can happen when the social environment that intellectually curious people can access improves. Podcasts are an experiment in expanding access to specific types of intellectual conversations of a scale that has never been attempted before. People in rural Sweden listen in, as do millions in India, Nigeria, Brazil, and other areas that until recently had no access to the conversations and thought patterns at American research institutions or Silicon Valley startups. As they start identifying with these ways of being through parasocial relationships—as they start talking like this, as they start companies and blogs and engage in conversations about nuclear fusion or AI alignment or Georgist economics—what will happen then?